Community development: Co-op Plan Needs Cooperation | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Community development: Co-op Plan Needs Cooperation


The Hill District got $25,000 closer to a grocery store in May, when a group of Carnegie Mellon University students won a national competition for their design proposal to build a food co-op in the longtime fresh-food-impoverished neighborhood. The award, from JP Morgan Chase, is considered seed money for a nonprofit grocery store, but the CMU students have bigger plans for the Hill.



Problem is, they're not the only ones with plans for the Hill, and some of these competing plans are targeted for the same location.


Speaking before the Hill District Consensus Group on June 8, CMU master's student Renee Roy unveiled a three-phase plan that would change the game for the Hill's Centre Avenue business corridor, with the Hill House Association as its partner.


"Instead of having a Giant Eagle or Foodland who would profit off of and take money out of the community," said Roy, a co-op "could channel profits back into the Hill, as well as other development projects going on in this community."


The co-op would operate much like the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze, where community members share ownership of the store, and where some of the goods are locally gardened and produced. Profits would be reinvested in the Hill District. Inner City Grocers, Inc., a North Side firm which pools money for grocery stores in underserved and urban markets, has signed on as the store operator.


Planned for the corner of Centre Avenue and Heldman Street, the grocery store would feature a much-needed pharmacy, which the Hill has also lacked for decades. The two-story building would also contain a café, leased space for offices and outreach programs, skylights to decrease energy costs and a "vegetated roof" -- a garden that would cap the structure and provide fruits and vegetables for sale in the store below.


Roy's plan, however, goes further than the food co-op. The proposal's later phases map out land for community gardens, cultural parks, a second stand-alone pharmacy, and a new outdoor stairway leading to the Hill House Association across the street: The connection would create a "physical dialogue" between the social-service institution and the new grocery store. The plan also calls for: a bookstore (to replace D. Berry's Books, Gifts & Café, which closed last year); a new Carnegie library, which is already in the city's and Carnegie's plans; an outdoor amphitheater; and restoration of the New Granada theater, which currently exists only as an historic façade but with new paintings recently affixed to it by Hill District artist George Gist.


It's a large vision, considering backers have only $25,000 on hand. The grocery store alone is estimated to cost $6.8 million. What's more, another developer -- Ebony Development, Inc. -- already has plans to build a grocery store on the same land.


Ebony, which is owned and operated by the family of Hill District resident Irv Williams, has had its own master plan for central Centre Avenue for the past couple years. "Both plans are good plans, but they can't happen on the same lot," says Carl Redwood, who heads the Hill Consensus Group. "There needs to be more discussion so that the CMU plan can be incorporated into the larger community plan."


Representatives from Ebony did not return calls by press time. One of its reps, Elbert Hatley, was present for Roy's presentation and made no comments when the floor was open for discussion. Ebony CEO Irv Williams told the New Pittsburgh Courier on June 29 that his company's plans were obstructed by current city Councilor Sala Udin, saying Ebony's had a grocery store deal but "it didn't take place because I wasn't supporting the councilman for re-election."


When City Paper spoke with Udin in May before that election, Udin said any talk of him obstructing proposals from Williams were "pure rumor."


Said Udin, "There has been no development that Irv Williams has engaged in, in the Hill, that I or the URA have not supported. ... If they came here, they were welcomed with open arms."


If the CMU/Hill House plan is activated, it will have to make other adjustments as well: The building their plan marks for a new bookstore (Ebony's One Hope Square) is already occupied by the campaign headquarters of Tonya Payne, who defeated Udin in the May primary. The building envisioned for a stand-alone pharmacy, at Centre Avenue and Devilliers Street, has already been earmarked for a Family Dollar store, which the Hill House Economic Development Corporation has recruited to the area.


Redwood and the Consensus Group have been holding regular community meetings to make sure that all plans on the table are synthesized smoothly, and with community feedback. Formed in the '90s to ensure no plans for the Hill would be made without local input, the Consensus Group has seen several development plans come and go -- especially ones concerning a new grocery store. The key challenge for now, says Redwood, is accommodating the multiple current plans for a grocery store. 


 "If there's a way we can combine efforts of other community plans, we'd like to come to a consensus on how we can move forward," Redwood said after Roy's presentation. "We think [the CMU/Hill House plan] would be the best solution." 

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